The Grim, Strangely Hopeful World of Per Petterson

As existentially bleak as it is, I Refuse is not devoid of hope. A refusal is a negation, to be sure, but a lost swimmer may refuse to drown.

We tend to think of trauma as a sort of parenthesis, a violent interruption of an otherwise mundane narrative, but in the fiction of Per Petterson, the reverse would almost be true. For his characters, peace is that interruption, a fleeting suspension of the physical and emotional suffering that defines them. Though no Freudian, Petterson typically makes childhood the locus of those traumas, and his characters never really manage to move past them, even as they mature and age.

This may account for Petterson’s preoccupation with time. It’s a leitmotif in all of his works, and I Refuse, translated by Don Bartlett and published by Graywolf Press, is no exception. We may be beings-in-time, but Petterson shows us that we often feel outside of it, even as we are caught up in it. Like swimmers we come up for air and discover ourselves carried far from where we expected to be.

Treading water, Petterson’s characters manage to stay afloat, but just barely. There’s a solitary desperation in their attempts to come to terms with where they are and how they got there, and the effect is disorienting and surreal. This is the case with Jim and Tommy, the two estranged boyhood friends who are the principal characters in the book.

Jim, who suffers from panic attacks and depression, has been unable to work. “I hadn’t been to my office since I had sick leave, and that I had after only three weeks, and it made me feel ashamed, and that was probably why I didn’t go in. There was no one I was close to, no one I should or could confide in, I knew nothing about any of them. To be honest, I didn’t want to go there at all, that was the truth, I had not paid attention, I had been looking to the wrong side, and in the rear-view mirror I could see I had already gone too far and everyone I saw was a stranger to me.”

A chance meeting with Tommy after 35 years triggers a flood of memories for both men, and just maybe an opportunity, as well. By society’s standards, Tommy is the success story that Jim should have been. Yet, money has not made Tommy happy. Neither his expensive car nor his expensive purple coat, with all of its regal splendor, can erase the past or give meaning to the present.

“Yes, yes, (the coat) cost serious money, lots of money, that’s how it had turned out, and most things I bought, they gave me nothing. I just bought them, and now there were two or three of them in every room, there were paintings I never noticed hanging on the walls in the house where I lived alone, and I had the latest fashion in furniture, and antiques, and designer jugs made of glass or steel or both, and blenders, Italian ashtrays, and I didn’t see them, not a single one, and I didn’t use any of them and couldn’t even remember where I had bought them.”

Yet, I Refuse is not a Marxist critique of global capitalism any more than it is a psychoanalytical study of childhood trauma. While Tommy and Jim both live in poverty, it’s very clearly an existential poverty, one defined by a crisis of meaning rather than a lack of goods.

Years earlier, Jim had tried to commit suicide. “But I couldn’t remember why I tried to hang myself. Actually, I couldn’t remember being mad, either. Or ill. If that sounds better. In which way I was ill. On the contrary, I felt normal, I felt that the world was as I knew it, and I too was the way I was supposed to be. I felt I was in tune with the world. I really did.”

This is a heavy book, dripping with angst. And although Petterson’s books are unambiguously Norwegian with regards to names and locales, in terms of theme, mood and style the authors I was most reminded of when reading I Refuse were American: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and especially Cormac McCarthy.

Consider the description we get below, when Jim starts reflecting upon his existential situation:

He was the wrong side of fifty, and yet for six months he had gone out at least twice a week, to restaurants and bars around this district and in Oslo, and entered and looked around thinking, where shall I sleep tonight, and most often he ended up in the house of a woman he had never seen or spoken to before, whose husband on this particular weekend or any other weekend was away, a lorry driver heading for Hamburg, a rig worker in the North Sea, or she was what you called single, not solitary, but single, and one time he came all the way out to a house in Høland, in the district of Hemnes, right in the south of it, and he was able to have a conversation with her the morning after, it was a major surprise, but he never saw her again, he couldn’t find the house, although he made a serious effort.

Yes, that really is all one sentence. At times Petterson (or his translator, Bartlett) rolls the words at you like tumbleweed on an icy flatland and, to be honest, it becomes annoying.

Vexingly, the novel wanders back and forth unpredictably from third-person to several different first-person accounts. Understandably, we get Jim and Tommy’s versions of their boyhoods, but why we need the first-person account of one of Tommy’s three sisters, Siri, is less clear. For the above reasons, some readers may find the book disjointed and irksome, and that is unfortunate, because the truth is that Petterson is a great storyteller, one who does not need to rely on stylistic gymnastics.

His characters — Jim, Tommy, Siri — are all pitiable characters, all walking wounded, but they are also sympathetic and moving, capable of surprises. We want them to rise above their misery. Because of them, most readers will find I Refuse absolutely compelling. And, as existentially bleak as it is, I Refuse is not devoid of hope. A refusal is a negation, to be sure, but a lost swimmer may refuse to drown.

RATING 7 / 10